Category Archives: development

Intel is doing it smart

At the last WTPF meeting I learned about the Magellan laptop project of the Portuguese government.  Every participant was provided with such a laptop for the duration of the forum, at the end of which the laptops were supposed to be donated “to children in a developing country.”  I am not sure where exactly they went, but many of the participants got to keep their laptops and were provided with a lot of information about the project.

The Magellan laptop

The Magellan initiative, named after the 16th century explorer, is a collaboration between Intel and the Portuguese government.  According to Mr. Mario Lino, Minister of Public Works, Transport and Communications, it is part of the government’s commitment to development of the “information society” in Portugal.  The aim is to deliver those laptops to 1.1 million students registered in their e-school program and supposedly 800K have been already deployed.  Moreover, the initiative is looking to expand beyond the Portuguese borders.  A number of times during the forums it was mentioned that a really large shipment of Magellan laptops (if I remember correctly about 200K) went to Columbia and shipments to other corners of the world are on their way.

The project representatives I talked to at the forum were not ready to say how much it would cost if someone wanted to by a batch of these machines.  They sold them on spot for 250 Euro a piece, but told me that the price will be negotiated per project depending on the quantities and the educational needs of the client.  From my neighbor on the flights back to the US, whose kid participates in the program, I learned that in Portugal those laptops are distributed for 50 Euro maximum (if the family is not eligible for any additional subsidies).  If the family falls in certain category, it would get not only the laptop for free, but also an internet connection as long as there are children aged 8-10 in the household and their participate in the program.

Indeed, the program is very well known in Portugal.  I was lucky enough to receive one of those laptops and carrying it around and taking it on the plane attracted both attention and comments of the locals who were really proud about their local laptop traveling to the US.

Digging into it, Magellan laptop is the Classmate PC in a different cover.  I think Intel have handled it really smart with this project.  They gave the Portuguese government the ability to repackage their Classmate PC so that it could be presented to the world as a Portuguese laptop and the Portuguese government could take the credit.  In other words, the Portuguese government rips political dividend while helping Intel disseminating their technology.  Sort of a win-win situation.

The laptops are indeed assembled in Portugal (from parts made in China), which makes it the first European laptop.  My version came with Windows XP in English, but from my neighbor on the flights back I learned that machines distributed in Portugal come with dual boot of XP and Ubuntu.  Moreover, they come with an educational software, which according to my neighbor was rather buggy and not very useful.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the software.

The size, the design, and most importantly the purpose of the laptop (and the entire program), raised an immediate comparison to OLPC and XO, but on that (and more on the specs of the laptop) in a latter post.  In the meantime, here are few more pictures of the machine with some comments.

Just to give you a sense of its size compared to a standard business card; also note the handle to carry it around

Just to give you a sense of its size compared to a standard business card; also note the handle to carry it around

An open laptop: the keybord is pretty small (designed for kids) and my version has Portuguese layout; the touch pad is nice, but I couldn't figure out how to turn off the tapping functionality; note a built-in webcam above the screen

An open laptop: the keybord is pretty small (designed for kids) and my version has Portuguese layout; the touch pad is nice, but I couldn't figure out how to turn off the tapping functionality; note a built-in webcam above the screen

Right side: USB port, SD card reader, LAN, and power

Right side: USB port, SD card reader, LAN, and power

Left side: Another USB port, headphones and microphone jacks

Left side: Another USB port, headphones and microphone jacks

The bottom view of the laptop

The bottom view of the laptop

Another bottom view, this time with the battery out

Another bottom view, this time with the battery out

Economic peace?

The phrase “economic peace” may not be the most popular phrase in the Middle East, since it was utilized for the election campaign of Likud.  However, economics seems to be a powerful element and things happen in spite of politics.

I am writing this because I just learned from the Good Neighbors blog about a new initiative by Wharton (I assume MBA) students, called The initiatives seems to be a close replica of the Kiva, which I think one of the most innovative projects combining micro-finance with possibilities opened up by technological progress.  The main difference between Kiva and LendforPeace is the geographical focus.  In their own words: is a not-for-profit Internet platform that allows individuals like you to make small loans to specific micro-entrepreneurs in the Palestinian Territories.

Our mission is to use micro-lending to promote economic opportunity and political stability in the Middle East.

The website was officially launced at the beginning of this month with a grant from Clinton Foundation after a pilot set of loans ($5000) was successfully returned in about half a year (you can learn more about it on their blog).

One of the “selling points” of the project is that it is established by two Jewish and two Palestinian students.  I presonally think that it would be even cooler if it these were two Israelis and two Palestinians in the team. Nevertheless I find these kinds of joint ventures encouraging.

OLPC vs. Virtual computing

A post with the following title has recently landed on my RSS reader: “California firm undercuts $100 laptop scheme“. Apparently it was not a single instance of similar reporting.  The “Silicon Alley Insider” titled their article “Take that OLPC!“, “Forbes”, with a title “One Virtual PC Per Child” was more gentle, and there were others.  In most instances however, there was a subtle finger-pointing at OLPC as a failure.

The story is of NComputing, which produces terminals that distribute resources of a single PC across numerous terminals, which from the user’s side supposedly operate as a stand alone computers.  The company just signed a deal with the Indian government to sell 50K of its units, which are supposed to be used in 5K schools reaching 1.8 million children.  The cost of a “seat” at the terminal is US $70, which makes it rather attractive ($30 cheaper than yet to be achieved goal of OLPC).  This is probably why just about a year ago NComputing sold 180K of its devices to Macedonia.  And apparently the rivalry, particularly rhetorical one, between NComputing and OLPC is not new.  However, i think the critics are missing a point here.

Although looking at the numbers, it looks like NComputing’s solution is more attractive.  In fact most of the discussion surrounding OLPC has been around the costs and distribution (here is a really interesting and thorough post on the subject).  I tend to agree with a lot of criticism of the project, but not with the idea that is an obsolete idea.  I wrote before about the contribution of OLPC to developing the market for ultra small and cheap laptops aimed at education.  Yet it took me to listen to Matt Keller, Director for Europe, Middle East & Africa for OLPC, at the last ITU Telecom event, to realize the substantive philosophical argument this project is struggling to make.

In the articles I read about the NComputing story, OLPCs response to the deal was presented as an excuse.  Negroponte claimed that the two projects are incomparable as they are addressing different issues, but I am not sure that his point went through.  Indeed, the idea behind OLPC (and I sincerely wish they would do a better job communicating it), is for the child to make laptop an integral part of his or her learning.  Learning in this class does not include just sitting in front of a computer in class and following the teacher’s instructions, but to be able utilizing this resource anywhere this child goes.

For example, one of the particularly interesting and under-studied aspects of OLPC in my view is what happens when the children bring those devices home.  My intuition tells me that there are important repercussions on the ways knowledge and information are generated and distributed in OLPC families.  Although it is an empirical question, I think it is an important component in trying to compare the true value of OLPC vs. a centralized and non-mobile solution such as NComputing.

Using the so-much “liked” terminology I think on a conceptual level NComputing solution vs. cheap laptop solution (OLPC and potentially others) is the difference between 1.0 and 2.0 education.  In first version we indeed familiarize people with technology and socialize them into particular ways of using it focusing on how to perform tasks.  Having limited and segmented interaction with technology leaves little room for innovation and creativity, since the entire activity is taking place in the formal setting.  At the same time, owning the technology (which also has been found in research as correlated with “digital literacy”) allow more natural interaction with it, thus leaving room and opportunity to go beyond the institutional boundaries of the fixed model.

Abdul-Muyeed Chowdhury, the director of an organization working to build subsidized cyber cafes across Bangladesh,is cited in Forbes article as saying “If we could afford to buy one computer per child, we wouldn’t be a poor country.  In a country where people make $1 or $2 a day, it doesn’t make economic sense for everyone to have their own computer. It makes sense to share them.”  Indeed, the sharing model worked with the mobile phones (see GraminPhone as an example), but I think the remaining question is what’s the purpose of deploying that technology.  However, I think we should remember that the purpose of simply providing access (even providing access with a focus on creating business opportunities) is different from the purpose of educating.  It seems to me that the government officials who are making decisions as to whether spend $70 or $100 per education of a child in their country (or more precisely $200-$300 or  $400), should consider the long-term value and the indirect effects of these $30 (or even $100).

What do you think?

Eyes on Africa

Some time ago I shared my thoughts about Africa’s potential as the next Asia in terms of socioeconomic development, particularly when it comes to the MICT related issues.  Recently I have encountered a couple of observations that support this intuition.

First, it seems that mobile equipment manufacturers and service providers discover more interest in the African market.  Here are a number of examples: MTN, the South Africa based telecom was recently voted as the most preferred place to work for in Uganda; originally Kuwaiti Zain group has announced that is going to invest “$1bn per annum in Nigeria till 2011″; Nokia is about to ship 3G enabled phone with Amharic interface to Ethiopia; and Telecom Kenya is about to start selling iPhones in the country under the Orange brand.  Some of these moves can be of course viewed as political, but nevertheless, i think they indicate a development in the African telecom market.

Second, I am noticing that a number of countries in the region are taking off in terms of their activity in the field of telecom.  For example, Egypt is becoming a major telecom hub in the region.  Here is an article suggesting that it is becoming Africa’s leading market.  But not only that.  It is also becoming a major venue for international telecom policy debates.  Just a few months ago it hosted ITU Telecom Africa, later this year it is going to host a major ICANN meeting, and it has a record of hosting other internainal telecom related events in recent past.  Also, South Africa, a more veteran leader on this scene, has been hosting telecom related venues with global impact such as the upcoming World Telecommunication Standartization Assembly (WTSA).  Again, I realize that the processes in Egypt are probably due to the efforts of the Mubarak family, which seems to be in a not very stable political situation.  Nevertheless, it is bringing more of the global policy debates to the continent, which contributes to my argument of Africa starting to play a more prominent role.

Have you had any observations like that?  Do they make sense?  Or have you encountered information that supports/chllanges my observations?  Please share.

Some ICT4D numbers

Following John Daly’s lead, I read an interesting article in “Issues in Science and Technology” discussing the link between information technology and socioeconomic development. The article by Renee Kuriyan, Isha Ray, and Daniel Kammen from Berkley explores the viability of business-government partnerships for development.  On the one hand, they ask what degree it is possible to do well while doing good.  On the other, they are trying to see what are the needed conditions for this paradigm to work.  It is quite an interesting read and the authors draw a rather complex evaluation of this approach.

You are welcome to read the entire article, but what I wanted to share here are some quotes containing numbers about information technology and associated investment in developing countries.  So, here we go:

With the explosion of markets for low-cost cell phones, personal digital assistants, and personal computers, the information and communications technology (ICT) sector has been particularly influenced by the BOP business logic. More than half of the world’s population lives in rural or peri-urban areas outside the reach of ICT networks. To bridge this digital divide, the World Bank and IFC have invested $5 billion in loans to ICT projects in more than 80 countries. Most USAID programs worldwide have an ICT component, with its latest report indicating that the U.S. government spent a total of $120 million on ICT for development purposes (ICT4D).

Mobile telephony represents the most dramatic ICT4D and BOP success story. According to the joint WRI and IFC report, between the years 2000 and 2005, the number of mobile subscribers in developing countries grew to nearly 1.4 billion, a fivefold increase. Annual increases in cell phone subscribers exceed 100% per year in some nations, notably in sub-Saharan Africa.

India stands out as a leader in developing ICT4D projects, with over 150 private and public initiatives. Mobile subscribers per 1,000 people increased from 4 in the year 2000 to 48 in 2004. Internet users per 1,000 people went from 5 in 2000 to 23 in 2004. The Indian government has made a concerted effort to deliver low-cost connectivity and ICT-enabled services to the “common person” for development purposes. One of the most popular channels for the mass delivery of ICT4D services is through access to shared computers in rural ICT kiosks (also known as telecenters). The kiosks are equipped with one or more Internet-enabled computers and are generally owned and run by independent entrepreneurs. The Indian government is in the process of installing 100,000 ICT kiosks for business and government services throughout the country through a franchise model. Microsoft Corporation India has committed to initiating an additional 50,000 kiosks on the premise that such kiosks can be drivers of growth and facilitate development through business opportunities. The most recent company to seek its fortune in rural India is Google, with a simplified search engine and mobile phone applications, customized to provide weather information, crop patterns, and other relevant data to rural customers.

There are no new and shocking ideas in these data, but it is always good to put numbers along some commonly shared “wisdoms”.  Again, here is a link to the complete article.

A thought a day

Thinking about development, Asia is recognized as a region that enjoyed a real boost in the recent couple of decades.  The more I read about Africa, I start thinking whether or not it is going to be the Asia of the next few decades.  Here is an interesting post from John Daly, with some of the similar thinking.

Optimisitic numbers

Even though I didn’t make it to Telecom Africa, I couldn’t escape the African motive. Recently, I came across some optimistic numbers about adoption of ICT in the region. The ITU report, cited here, suggests that (a) there is currently more technology in Africa and (b) it is more evenly spread across the continent (the more interesting observation in my view). At the same time, it suggests that people in Africa find mobile more useful, compared to the internet, which is not surprising provided the price of internet access (the cite states a figure of $50 and that is a lot!). In fact, the mobile market is showing impressive growth in other developing countries, which makes it supposedly an interesting aim for foreign investors.

I wonder though, what is the impact of adoption of these technologies on the lives of people? Do they make their lives easier? Happier? More prosperous? How do they use it? How different these ways are from what we are used for? What business and technological innovation is taking place in this process?

Quite fascinating…

Innovating for conformity?

OLPCJust read a blog post about the new CEO of the OLPC project, who seem to envision the project in more technological and less educational terms. Then i read a response to that post written by Gaurav Chachra, who presents himself as “founder member of OLPC India Student Chapter“.

Gaurav is actually making a very good point about the (unrealized) potential of the OLPC project to impact the power balance between people and technology as a primarily commercially-driven institution. He asks a simple question about why would we want OLPC to run Windows XP in first place? I can think of potential answers such as Windows being the most commonly used platform and thus it is necessary to work with it in order to compete in the modern economy. At the same time, I wonder where does it put those, who are joining this competition race at this stage, in the technological hierarchy. It looks like if those who are joining now will have to catch up, while on the other hand there is knowledge in the system that could potentially allow them to leap-frog the catching up or just approach the entire situation from a different angle.

The latter point brings an even larger question about the “digital culture” and this is where the question of power relations. Naturally, Microsoft has an invested interest in making Windows XP the primary operating system for any vast technology-literacy project/movement in the developing world. If we learn that the world is flat, we will be hesitant to go and explore the ages. Similarly, if we learn that computers are Microsoft, we will be hesitant to explore the alternatives (even if there would be people who explain to us that the alternatives are better). The question of the OLPC’s ability to run Windows XP is a clear outcome of this path dependency and us being used to a specific kind of computer mediated experience. However, the point Faurav is making is that the vast populations of children in developing world have never been socialized in the ways we are using technology in the more privileged parts of the world. So, what not using this opportunity to re-examine the values underlying our efforts in the technology and development realm?

I wonder if taking the OLPC to the Windows-dominated reality would not constitute something that looks like innovation for conformity?

Quickly glancing at OLPC

Quite a while ago i read this post about the rise of cheap computing solutions. In light of the growing critique of the OLPC project, it got me thinking that perhaps, by focusing on the details of this specific project we are overlooking some of its most important contributions.

OLPCJust three or four years ago OLPC was the only project explicitly targeting the developing world and the market for low cost, simple computers. Today, we have over 7 competing models targeting this very market (potentially more). As long as this competition continues we can expect better machines and lower prices in this segment. Perhaps that is good, since industry is probably better in taking care of the technical aspects (even if sometimes it needs a push, such as the OLPC project), leaving space for the educators and activists focusing on developing a decent educational infrastructure to utilize this technology.

The main critique of OLPC from the very beginning was that it should be an educational and not a technological project. And I agree that the technological solution alone is meaningless and the true potential for change lies in appropriate adoption framework, particularly when we talk about education. At the same time, I think that its contribution to the technological push should not be underestimated. Does it make any sense?

On an unrelated note, now you can also use Skype on XO computers. I think this is really cool, even though Skype has been recently loosing its quality.

(Images taken from, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5.)